Dreams take flight on wing, prayer

Retired Md. engineers attempt to fly model plane across the Atlantic Ocean

August 10, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

The Spirit of St. Louis it ain't. But a plucky 11-pound model airplane built by a group of mostly retired Maryland engineers is poised to embark on a similarly record-breaking flight.

Made of little more than balsa wood, Mylar and plastic foam, the Spirit of Butts Farm will attempt to pull off what no other craft its size has done: Make a nearly 2,000-mile trans-Atlantic hop from Newfoundland to Ireland.

"I'm far less nervous than I'd thought I'd be," said Maynard Hill, the 76-year-old project leader, by telephone from St. John's in Newfoundland.

A retired Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory engineer, Hill has spent the past four years working for this moment with a group of a half-dozen or so model airplane enthusiasts, including a former NASA engineer and computer programmer at the National Geographic Society.

This week the team arrived at the desolate sandstone headland in Canada called Cape Spear where they plan to launch. The easternmost point of North America, the cape juts so far into the frigid North Atlantic that tourists flock to it for iceberg- and whale-watching.

Fog and drizzle forced them to scrub the first two attempts. Last night, a break in the weather allowed the team finally to get Spirit off the ground, but an early mechanical problem put the model in the drink. The team plans a second attempt about 8 tonight with a spare Spirit.

Hill, who suffers from macular degeneration and hearing loss, has built models all his life but can no longer see his planes well enough to fly them. But by donning thick glasses and dyeing his airplane glue red to make it more visible, he can still build better aircraft than almost any modeler around, his friends say. When he first proposed flying one over the Atlantic nearly two decades ago, some friends thought he was crazy. But because of his track record as an engineer and a model builder, few bet against him.

"I so want to see Maynard do this," says 77-year-old Bob Yount, a retired Silver Spring engineer working on the project. "He's pretty deaf. He can barely see. It's his last hurrah. God can't let this plane fail."

Over the years, Hill -- who keeps a portrait of the Wright brothers in his Silver Spring basement workshop -- has landed in the hobby's record book numerous times. His models have flown as high as 26,919 feet, as long as 33 hours and 39 minutes, and as fast as 167 mph on a closed circuit -- world records that remain unbroken.

Building a model to cross an ocean has been his greatest engineering challenge. For the past four years, Hill and his friends have spent long hours flight testing on the Sunshine horse farm of Beecher Butts, an 88-year-old pilot for whom the Spirit is named.

About the `Spirit'

According to the rules of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the hobby's governing body, a model airplane can weigh no more than 11 pounds. So the Spirit carries less than a gallon of lantern fuel, consuming about "a shot glass" of the liquid each hour, says Roy Day, a 77-year-old retired NASA engineer from Rockville. He worked on the Gemini and Space Shuttle programs before joining Hill's project.

Propelled by a souped-up 10-cc piston engine, Spirit is capable of clawing through the air at 43 mph. At that pace, the plane would arrive about 45 hours after launch, although the team is expecting tailwinds to cut the flight time by several hours. Hill says that despite its balsa wood construction, the Spirit is tougher than it looks. "We have flown it in 35-mile-an-hour winds in Maryland," he says. "Unless we hit a real squall or something, structurally it's capable of taking it," he says.

At launch time, Hill trots down a gravel access road leading past Cape Spear's peeling 19th-century lighthouse. According to international rules, Spirit must be hand-launched and so has no landing gear. "It's a good lope and then a real husky throw," says Day, the retired NASA engineer. "You toss it like a giant javelin."

Radio control

Once the plane lumbers aloft, Joe Foster -- a Baltimore native who at 47 is the baby of the bunch -- takes over, guiding it by radio control to an altitude of 800 feet.

He circles the plane a few times and then switches it to autopilot, a custom-designed system he spent the past three years creating. "Then it's basically on its own," says Foster.

Beneath its Mylar skin, Spirit carries a Global Positioning System receiver, which provides latitude, longitude and altitude data. This information is fed into two custom-programmed microchips, which compare where the plane is to where it needs to be and then makes flight control adjustments accordingly.

Foster, who lives in Columbia and works as a programmer at the National Geographic Society, says the guidance system will keep the plane sputtering along 500 to 800 feet above the ocean, high enough to keep clear of ship masts but beneath real air traffic.

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